In a near-replica of Friday night’s performance, Stanford men’s volleyball (0-5, 0-5 MPSF) dropped its fifth straight game of the season and second in a row against No. 9 UCLA (8-3, 8-3 MPSF) in four sets. Similar to Friday night, the Cardinal came out swinging, taking the opening set before getting boat raced in the next two and losing a closely contested final set.
The Cardinal, who have competed against high-caliber opponents so far this season, are off to their worst start since 2007. But while it may look like the Cardinal walked out of Pauley Pavilion Saturday night empty-handed after back-to-back losses, head coach John Kosty said that the team is gaining important experience that will prove valuable as the season progresses.
“This is a completely different year than any of my 30 years, in the respect that we didn’t have a training block prior to a regular season,” Kosty said. “So, right now, as much as wins are valuable, we also need the experience to rely on so we can be the team we know we can be come April.”
The teams mirrored each other almost perfectly to start the night. Whenever UCLA slipped up with a service error, Stanford would respond with one of its own. When the Bruins would record a strong kill, freshman outside hitter Kupono Browne would return the favor. Overall, both the Cardinal and the Bruins looked clumsy off the bat, recording six and seven service errors respectively before the first time out.
But Stanford broke free from the back-and-forth with an offensive tear led by Browne, who recorded two aces and a kill during the 6-0 run to give the Cardinal an 18-15 lead. Both teams upped their offensive game near the end of the set, but the Cardinal’s defense bared its teeth against the surging Bruins. Sophomore libero Justin Lui, who recorded an impressive nine digs Saturday night, battled hard, laying out for balls while senior middle blocker Kyler Presho blocked powerful hits from the Bruins. The Cardinal ultimately staved off an offensive run and took the first set 25-21.
Kosty highlighted Browne’s play as a bright spot throughout the set and the match.
“From the service line, he created a whole lot of points for us,” Kosty said. “I also thought [Lui] had another solid match for us, controlling our passing and giving us opportunities to continually side out.”
Kosty also said that the Cardinal will have to cut down on its unforced hitting errors, a weak spot that UCLA exploited in the second set. With the Cardinal defense looking fatigued, the Bruin’s offense pounced, jumping out to a commanding 7-1 lead on four kills and three consecutive aces before Stanford called a timeout.
Following the break, sophomore outside hitter Will Rottman sparked the Cardinal offense with five kills. A balanced offensive effort kept the Cardinal in it, narrowing the deficit to 20-15 by the next Cardinal timeout. But even Stanford’s strong .381 hitting average in the second set could not make up for the slow start, and the Cardinal dropped the set 18-25. Throughout the set, UCLA sophomore outside hitter Cole Ketrzynski had his way with the Cardinal, recording six kills on just one error.
In the third set, Stanford dug itself another deep hole early as the offense struggled to find its form. By the first Cardinal timeout, the deficit was 2-7. The dominant Bruin’s offense continued its assault on the Cardinal, jumping out to a 12-2 lead before Stanford scored tallied its next point. Though the Cardinal cleaned their act up after the timeout and cut down on errors for the remainder of the set, little changed in the scoring department as the Bruins took the set with ease by a score of 25-12. Stanford hit a dreadful -.125, paling in comparison to the Bruins, who did not record a single error on their way to an efficient .667 hitting percentage.
“Fewer errors will come as we get more comfortable with the offense that we’re trying to instill into our team,” Kosty said. “And again, I love the word resilience, because I think our team really has shown that, even though the score in the third set did not look pretty for us.”
Early in the fourth set, Stanford demonstrated the resilience Kosty praised. The Cardinal came out firing on the offensive end, but the UCLA defense held the line against a barrage of powerful hits. Stanford looked resolute in attempting to not lose its fifth straight match by recording two aces and keeping within arm’s length of the Bruins before the first Cardinal timeout at 9-12. A powerful block assist from redshirt freshman middle blocker Ethan Hill narrowed the deficit to 12-13 and ignited the Cardinal bench. Though UCLA made multiple attempts to pull away, the Cardinal defense kept it close, drawing UCLA’s first timeout since the opening set at 18-21. But Stanford did not have a final charge in them and dropped the set 19-25.
Rottman logged the most attempts on the team with 37, and despite hitting just .162, he demonstrated the value he will offer the team moving forward.
“He is our horse, he’s the guy we’re going to rely on to get us big kills,” Kosty said. “He showed it last night when I put him at the opposite position, which he never played before. And then tonight in his more comfortable role as an outside hitter. Statistically, it may not show that, because we put him in some difficult situations, because that’s the type of player he is.”
The Cardinal will return to Palo Alto to practice this week before traveling to Utah to play back-to-back games against Brigham Young University next Friday and Saturday.